Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter
There are no bubbles in my starter –
- Your starter probably needs to be fed. Yeast can only produce carbon dioxide if it has a source of sugar to consume. Feed your starter with equal weights of flour and water.
I fed my starter and there are still no bubbles or rise –
- If your starter is new, continue to feed it based on the timeline instructions above. Hopefully within 14 days you will see signs of the yeast and bacteria colonizing and becoming stronger and more active. If the starter has been refrigerated for a long period it may take several feedings to “wake up.”
There is grey or brown liquid on the top of my stater –
- This liquid is called “hootch.” It is a byproduct of an underfed, over-fermented starter. It will smell strongly of alcohol and while unpleasant in appearance, it cannot hurt you. You can pour it off and discard half of your starter before re-feeding or stir it back into the starter for a very strong sour flavor.
There is mold on my starter –
- Unfortunately mold spores can contaminate a starter through the flour, water, or air. In this case, it is best to discard the contaminated starter, wash all sourdough utensils thoroughly, and replace it with a fresh starter. Keep your new starter as active as possible. The production of acids in the fermenting process will prohibit mold growth.
My starter smells like alcohol –
- When all the sugars in the flour have been consumed the acids will start to become alcoholic. A starter that smells strongly of alcohol needs to be fed! Feed your starter with equal weights of flour and water.
My starter is bubbly but it won’t rise bread –
- In the early stages of sourdough baking this can be a real problem. It happens to all of us. A sourdough starter needs to be used often, fed often, and kept at a warm room temperature.
- Double feed your starter for three days.
- Make sure to remove starter every time before feeding. This will give the remaining yeast more food sources and encourage the strong yeast to multiply.
- Make sure you’re storing your starter in a warm environment that encourages the fermentation process. If you keep your house cool, try placing your starter or bread dough in the oven with the light on.
Troubleshooting Your Bread Dough
My dough is too sticky during the mixing stage –
- Is your starter 100% hydration? If not, it may have a higher hydration than the recipe that you are trying to duplicate. Double-check the recipe instructions to find out if you are supposed to have a starter or leaven at a specific hydration. Most of my recipes call for starter at 100% hydration. Go to Page 8 of this guide for more on hydration levels.
- Sticky dough is often a sign of an immature sourdough starter. If it seems like it stays sticky for more than 2 hours, even after kneading or shape and fold, and it is not developing gluten or starting to rise, then you need to work on your starter. Make sure you feed your starter 4 to 8 hours prior to baking. It should double or triple in volume during this time. If it does not double or triple, start discarding and feeding that baby every 12 hours until it does! Go to page Page 8 for more on feeding starter.
My bread was rising fine but became very sticky and hard to work with at shaping time –
- This could be caused by an overpopulation of bacteria that are souring your bread too quickly and breaking down gluten strands in the process. We strive for a balance between yeast and bacteria, but often, especially with starters that don’t get used regularly or are young and underdeveloped, the bacteria is out-competing the yeast for sugar. The result is a sloppy, over-proofed mess at shaping time. To diagnose if the bacteria are out-competing the yeast pay close attention to your starter. If it smells or tastes very sour, develops hootch, or won’t rise within 4 to 8 hours there is a good chance your yeast strains are weak and the starter needs work. To remedy this problem feed that starter every 12 hours until it is doubling within 4 to 8 hours consistently!
- If your bread had a good rise and is still holding gas but got sticky while shaping, then it may be overworked. All bread dough requires a very gentle touch at this stage. If you break the gluten strands at the shaping stage by overworking the dough it will get sticky, flatten out in a blob, and won’t look smooth. To avoid this problem pull the dough gently when shaping, just barely stretching it; if it starts to tear you are overworking it. If you feel like you didn’t get it tight enough, don’t worry about it, there is always next time. A gentle touch and smooth dough will always rise better than one that has been overworked with broken gluten.
I need to fix my overworked dough –
- Gather the dough back into the bowl and let it rest for at least 1 hour or until you see it start to rise again. At this point, turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and very gently and loosely shape the dough. Let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes and gently shape it a little more. If you even see one tear, STOP. Put the dough in a floured banneton or loaf pan and let it proof again either at room temp or in the refrigerator as the recipe instructs. This might not be your best shaped loaf, it’s ok, this is how we learn to handle the dough!
Adjusting Recipes, Substitutions, and Conversions
You will inevitably come across recipes you want to try but won’t have the exact ingredients on hand. It’s ok! Sourdough is very versatile — you just need to follow a few simple rules and your baking intuition.
Rule #1. Not all wheat flour behaves the same –
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t experiment with fancy heirloom flours, freshly milled grains, or fun additions. It just means don’t expect the same results that the recipe shows if you adjust and substitute ingredients.
Heirloom grains may need more or less liquid hydration depending on the variety. So if you are substituting a different flour than what the recipe calls for, always start with 75% of the liquid and see how the dough feels. You can always add more hydration if you need to.
Rule #2. Whole grains won’t rise quite as much –
This is due to the way gluten in flour works. Gluten is long strands of protein that trap carbon dioxide. If there is bran from the outer husk of the grain in your flour it will disrupt those long gluten strands, making them shorter and resulting in a more dense bread.
Don’t expect a light, lofty, open crumb when you use more than 50% whole wheat.
Rule #3. Adjust recipes with texture and hydration in mind –
Once you’ve made a few loaves of well-developed bread you will start to identify the texture of a properly hydrated flour. In my experience, when fully mixed and kneaded, sourdough bread dough will be tacky to the touch but not overly sticky (unless the recipe says it should be as with my English Muffins). If you have lots of whole grains or rolled grains in the dough then you can get away with a tad more hydration as some of that will get soaked into the grains during the bulk ferment.
Rule #4. Always use your intuition –
Good bakers rely on their senses because they know that ingredients, temperatures, and conditions change. So always pay close attention to the little details like how your starter behaves, how your bread rises, how long it takes for the starter and dough to double, how fast it browns in the oven at different temperatures, how long it takes to bake through, what flours you like, and so on. If you pay attention to all the details like this you will have a deep understanding of your sourdough starter and that will give you a thorough knowledge base for your intuition to draw from.
Rule #5. Don’t be afraid to fail –
Sourdough baking is so much trial and error. Not every recipe will work. Sometimes you won’t get consistent results. But if you keep working at it I guarantee that after some practice you will develop your own style of baking and you will make wonderful nourishing sourdough bread!
Watch the way I handle the dough in this video:
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